Aspie Social Skills and the Free Software Community


LWN has an article by Valerie Aurora titled “The dark side of open source conferences” [1] which is about sexual harassment and sexual assault at Free Software conferences. Apparently some conferences create such a bad environment that some people won’t attend, it’s a well researched article that everyone in the community should read.

The Autism Derailment

The comments have the usual mix of insight, foolishness, and derailment that you expect from such discussions. One derailment thread that annoyed me is the discussion about men on the Autism Spectrum started by Joe Buck [2]. Joe seems to believe that the 1% of males on the Autism Spectrum (and something greater than 1% but a lot less than 50% in the Free Software community) are a serious part of the problem because they supposedly hit on women who aren’t interested in them – in spite of the fact that the article in question is about women who are “being insulted, harassed, and groped at at open source conferences“. The article had no mention of men who try to chat up women – presumably this was a deliberate decision to focus on sexual assault and harassment rather than what Joe wanted to talk about.

In response Mackenzie made the following insightful point:

I don’t think any autistic person who is high-functioning enough to A) contribute to open source B) want to be at an event with so many people and C) carry on any sort of conversation is low-functioning enough not to understand “stop” or “no.” If you can understand “your patch has been rejected,” you can likely understand “don’t do that again.”

Understanding how Other People Feel

Bruce Perens claimed “What they [Aspies] don’t understand is how the other person in the situation feels“. Like many (possibly most) people Bruce doesn’t seem to get the fact that no-one can really understand how other people feel. The best logical analysis of this seems to be the Changing Emotions article on Less Wrong [3]. While Less Wrong deals with Male to Female conversion as the example (which may be relevant to the discussion about the treatment of women) the same logic also applies to smaller changes. Anyone who even thinks that if they would always be able understand how their identical twin felt (if they had one) probably hasn’t considered these issues much. As an aside, having a psychologist diagnose you as being on the Autism Spectrum and therefore by implication thinking differently to 99% of the population really makes you consider the ways in which other people might have different thought processes and experiences.

Every time we have a discussion about issues related to sexism in the Free Software community we get a lot of documented evidence that there are many people who are apparently neuro-typical (IE not Autistic) who don’t understand how other people think – in many cases they go so far as to tell other people what their emotional state should be.

What Really Happens

Nix said “However, in that situation our natural reflex is to *get out of there*, not to jump on women like some sort of slobbering caveman” which is a really good summary.

In more detail, I think that the vast majority of guys who are on the Autism Spectrum and who are able to do things like attend computer conferences (*) realise that chatting up a random girl that they meet is something that just isn’t going to work out. Generally people don’t attempt things that they expect to fail so I don’t think that Autistic guys are going to be hitting on girls at conferences.

(*) Having never met any Autistic people who aren’t capable of attending such conferences I can’t speak for them. I really doubt that the Low Functioning Autistic guys are as much of a problem as some people claim, but lack evidence. In any case the actions of people who don’t attend conferences aren’t relevant to a discussion about things that happen at conferences.

Update: It Keeps Going

Dion claims that the misogyny at conferences is due to socially inept people, he also casually switches between discussing people who misunderstand when someone is flirting and people who hire almost-naked booth-babes (two very different classes of action) [4]. Several people asked for supporting evidence, naturally none was provided.

In response njs posted a link to Marissa Lingen’s blog post “Don’t blame autism, dammit” [5]. Marissa points out that people who offend other people due to lacking social skills will tend to do so in times and places that are likely to get a bad reaction – if you don’t know that you are doing something wrong then there’s no reason to hide it. If someone offends a senior manager at a corporate event then it could be because they are on the Autism Spectrum (I’ve apparently done that). If someone offends junior people at a times and places where there are no witnesses but is always nice to managers and other powerful people then it’s not related to Autism.

One final note, I have little tolerance for anyone who claims to be an Aspie when they do something wrong. You are either on the Autism Spectrum all the time or none of it. Anyone who wants any sympathy for me for an occasion where they stuffed up due to being an Aspie can start by making a clear statement about where they are on the Autism Spectrum.

Update2: Yet More from Bruce Perens

Bruce wrote “IMO, the kind of men who go in to software engineering suffer a lack of healthy interaction with women who are their peers, and it may be that the high incidence of empathy disorders in our field is involved” (which seems to be part of the inspiration for Joe Buck later in that thread) and now claims “Nobody here was trying to connect Asperger’s or autism with the touching incidents or violent crime“.

Matthew Garrett responded to that with “If you weren’t trying to say that the high incidence of empathy disorders in our field was related to a lack of healthy interaction with women who are their peers, and that that has something to do with incidents of sexual harassment or assault at conferences, what were you trying to say? Because that sounds awfully like ‘We wouldn’t have so many problems if it weren’t for all the autists’“.

Bruce’s latest comment is “If you choose to read something that nasty into my writing, that’s your problem. Get therapy“.

Through this discussion I’ve been unsure of whether to interpret the statements by Bruce et al the way Matthew does or whether I should consider them as merely a desperate attempt to derail the discussion. I can’t imagine any possible way of interpreting such comments in connection with the discussion of sexual assault as anything other than either trivialising violent crimes against women (suggesting that they are no worse than asking out someone who’s not interested) or claiming that anyone who lacks social skills should be treated as a violent sexual predator. It’s just not reasonable to believe that every single person who wrote such comments referring to Autism was misunderstood and really meant something nice.

As a general rule I don’t think that it’s the responsibility of other people to try and find a non-offensive interpretation of something that one might say. I don’t think that all the people who strongly disagree with the most obvious and reasonable interpretations of Bruce’s comments should get therapy. I think that Bruce should explain what he means clearly.


23 thoughts on “Aspie Social Skills and the Free Software Community”

  1. Bruce Perens says:


    Of course neurotypical folks don’t read minds, but they pick up on cues that inform them of other people’s feelings, with reasonable accuracy, that people on the spectrum might miss.

    There is a well-known Free Software evangelist who is widely believed to be on the spectrum. He hits on women, with some success, at conferences and elsewhere. He doesn’t avoid it or approach it with fear (today). But he is entirely incapable of empathy for a person who does not think as he does. When pressed, he rationalizes his perspective on the other’s thought to right and wrong, rather than just different. He can act with astonishing immaturity in front of an audience, sometimes making social gaffes, without being conscious of what they will think.

    His disorder definitely makes him more likely to offend unconsciously.

  2. etbe says:

    Bruce: Please read the Wikipedia pages for Empathy and Sympathy as you don’t seem to know what Empathy means.

    It seems quite obvious that you are referring to RMS, so we might as well name him to make it clear for everyone. For purposes of comparison please cite some examples of famous people who don’t appear to have an attitude problem related to their fame and don’t offend people because of it. In a few minutes I can only think of the Dalai Lama and Tori Amos. So I think that RMS is probably about as difficult to deal with as the typical celebrity other than the Dalai Lama and a few other exceptional people.

    People who think that they can pick up on cues with “reasonable accuracy” are more likely to get it dramatically wrong. Read the comments on the LWN article and you will see some good examples of apparently NT people who seem unable to understand how other people think – but don’t realise this.

    At the time of the Lindy Chamberlin trial a lot of the media coverage focussed on her apparent emotional state. Her conviction in court relied on forged evidence but her conviction in the media relied on people like you who think that they can accurately determine someone’s feelings at a glance (plus some bigotry towards a minority religious group). There are still people who believe that she is guilty based on her not crying enough at the time.

  3. Bruce Perens says:

    I read the Wikipedia article. I mean empathy in the sense related here, taken from the Wikipedia article.

    # Nancy Eisenberg: An affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition, and that is similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected to feel.

    # R. R. Greenson: To empathize means to share, to experience the feelings of another person.

    Please DO NOT name names, it adds nothing to the discussion and turns it in an ad-hominem direction.

    It does not take the social ability of the Dalai Lama or Tori Amos to think through, in advance of the action, what the audience reaction will be if you attempt to clean out the space between all 10 of your toes on stage while you are speaking. This was an actual event related by the conference organizer. And a neurotypical person might well have realized how the audience was taking the action while it was in progress.

  4. etbe says:

    Bruce: If you are going to write a description of someone that is clear to everyone who is involved in the community without naming them then you aren’t actually obscuring their identity, merely making it a closed club. Restricting someone’s identity to the set of people who’s opinion they are most likely to care about doesn’t seem to do any good either.

    In terms of RMS attitude towards people who have different ideas about software licensing, he shows no sympathy at all – which is expected of someone who spends their life advocating an extreme position.

    In terms of doing things that disturb an audience, you don’t have to know anything about the feelings of the audience to know that cleaning your toes on stage is a bad strategy.

    Jello Biafra has the main picture on the Wikipedia page about mooning for having mooned the audience at the HOPE conference. Reading about Jello he doesn’t seem to have shown any Aspie traits so it seems that NTs who get famous can think that the usual rules don’t apply to them either.

    In most cases people’s behavior tends towards whatever they can get away with. Famous people get away with more things and therefore do many things that the rest of us wouldn’t do. The freak-show that is Hollywood is evidence of this.

  5. Bruce Perens says:

    Jello’s action was conscious, and intended to maintain his brand as a performer of outrageous rejection of social norms.

    In contrast, the Free Software evangelist rejects the use of proprietary software, not the basic social norms of politeness. The purpose of his presentation, to convince folks to use Free Software, could only have been harmed by the performance under discussion.

    Thus, I continue to believe that he’s so uneven in function that these things happen before he can be corrected, and that they’re not really his fault.

  6. sir says:

    I think they don’t get the difference between autistic and socio- or psychopathic.

    The point with Richard Stallman is, he really is i-dont-know-what-but-its-not-good, evident in the fact that people call him RMS, which is clearly a depersonification, because they can’t relate to him and which never is a good sign.

    (it stands for root mean square. you can’t use that for a person, that’s an insult (in my point of view))

  7. etbe says:

    Bruce: When does Bruce ever give talks to convince people to use Free Software? As far as I can tell he specialises in preaching to the choir and maybe convincing the occasional Open Source person to support Free Software. Companies like Red Hat have people who do a good job of making the case for Free Software (at least in it’s commercially supported variation ;) and they do things in a totally different way with a totally different audience.

    [I meant to say “RMS” not “Bruce” there, sorry for the confusion]

    RMS has amended his plans in regard to making jokes about virgins after a massive public response. He’s willing to take notice of what the audience really wants.

    sir: Lots of people seem to miss the difference between Autistic people and Psychopaths, even though the two are almost polar opposites in many ways. The worst is when they treat young children as Psychopaths because of their stupid ideas.

    RMS is known by his Unix login name because he’s popular. It’s the same as ESR who doesn’t appear to be on the Autism Spectrum at all. There are a heap of people in the Free Software community (or the Open Source community in the case of ESR) who are known by their IRC nick or Unix account name.

  8. Bruce Perens says:

    It’s just his login, and it was a very common thing in early Unix days to refer to someone by their login. We were a very nerdy crowd.

  9. Bruce Perens says:

    I still give a lot of speeches but what is more important is when I work with companies and governments to help them embrace Open Source. I’m working with a national government right now for which I will draft IT policy, and a few different corporations. When a vendor recently shipped drivers and the community said “pigs flew today” about it, I was making the pigs fly with the company’s lawyers.

  10. Bruce Perens says:

    You mean when does Richard speak to general audiences? I have been with him to see a head of state (he handled it well) and have spoken at general-audience events where Free Software was one thread, and Richard and I both spoke.

    Richard does a lot of speaking. I have a kid at home and don’t want to be away too much while he’s growing up, so I generally only travel once a month.

  11. etbe says:

    Bruce: If he can do well when dealing with a head of state (something that most NTs couldn’t manage) then I don’t think that the things you describe are inherently Aspie issues. This seems to be evidence that the problem is the worshipful fans. Maybe if more people said “I respect all your great work in the past, but if you are going to do that sort of thing then I’ll skip all your talks” then he would refrain from doing certain things.

  12. Bruce Perens says:

    He definitely got the message on the “emacs virgin” thing. He won’t do that again. Next time it will be some other silly thing, where he doesn’t get an internal message not to do it and by the time others are able to correct him it’s too late.

    I get the impression he’s trying as hard as he can.

  13. etbe says:

    In terms of the virgin joke, by all accounts that was reasonably well received by the local audience. Even if the reception by the local audience had matched what might be expected in Australia or the US it’s still not something that someone might notice easily – from the podium you can’t easily determine if you have just offended 3% of your audience. So no matter how good someone is at sensing the emotional state of hundreds of people at the same time (which incidentally is something that NTs can’t do very well) there was still none of the 1:1 empathy involved. What was required was a logical analysis of the recent trends in terms of the acceptance of certain behaviors in the Free Software community. The results of that talk proved that there is no-where near a consensus that such things are inappropriate (there was significant ongoing debate).

    When giving a talk nowadays you just have to ask yourself, “will the jokes I’m planning on telling be likely to get me in the Geek Feminism Incidents list”.

    It’s not as if there is any shortage of NTs who have given talks which are significantly more offensive.

    Finally I can’t believe that someone could have Autistic issues that make it difficult for them to give a talk to the Free Software community but don’t cause problems when speaking with a head of state. I expect that it’s usually the exact opposite.

  14. Simon says:

    I’m not familiar with the various demarcations of autism. All those I know with a formal diagnosis find even attending conferences hard, and are more likely to be found absent than causing any sort of problem, let alone spontaneously interacting with anyone who doesn’t speak to them first. I guess that is what Nix already said, but I think that is typical.
    RMS may well have some of the characteristics of autism, but I think he is pretty unusual in many ways. So I’m not sure he is a good example if one wants to assess typical behaviour.
    I suspect testosterone may be a sufficient explanation.

  15. etbe says:

    Simon: There are many people who regularly attend events such as LCA who have been formally diagnosed by a psychologist, there are also plenty of people on the Spectrum who have given lectures at lots of Linux conferences. There are plenty more who have self-diagnosed, while self-diagnosis has been given a bad name by the people who use it as an excuse for doing inappropriate things there are plenty of self-diagnosed people who tend not to offend other people, they just have difficulty in social situations.

    There are many aspects of AS which are correlated with being successful at Free Software development, which leads to being invited to speak at conferences and then creating a more Aspie-friendly environment than many other conferences.

    One of the Aspie stereo-types is of someone who will spontaneously interact with other people for the purpose of giving a lecture about their favorite topic. Like many stereo-types it isn’t particularly accurate in general but is based on a kernel of truth. But in the context of the original discussion (treatment of women at conferences), I’ve never heard a woman complain about having people tell her about how great their favorite project is – and I’m certain that I will never hear such a complaint in the same conversation that includes things that can be described as attempted rape.

  16. PC says:

    First of all, people need to understand that although there is a ‘label’/diagnosis, like Asperger’s or High Functioning, every person is still an individual– if you’ve met one Aspie, you’ve met one Aspie.

    I find the most condescending interpretations and explanations of Aspie/ASD behaviours come from NTs, whether it be medical specialists or people commenting on blogs.

    The ability to take another’s perspective is a spectrum in itself, and doesn’t necessarily apply solely to people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

    I am also angered by the implication that the men who behave like assholes at confs must have social skill deficits and therefore be on the autism spectrum.

    A well known, non-autistic/non-Aspie identity in the FOSS world told me he regretted not “bedding” me and the rest of his one-sided conversation made it obvious he just assumed I would have gone along with it!

    I worked with an NT guy who was encouraging his younger male coworkers to do look up skirts at a workplace function, where women were standing on a balcony.

    I believe the men who are much more likely to hit on women attendees are the sales guys in the audience.

    Finally to Bruce Perens, I find your example of using the person referred to in your first comment to be typical of the ignorance facing those of us with family or children on the spectrum– just like others you have chosen someone with a reputation for “bad” examples of behaviour as a representation of people on the spectrum.

  17. Bruce Perens says:

    To PC: I know that all people are different. I have a neurological motor deficit (couldn’t speak clearly until I was 18 and still walk on my toes from time to time) and as far as I can tell it doesn’t really match a specific diagnosis.

    The two folks I know whom I believe to be on the spectrum, both well known in Open Source / Free Software, behave quite differently but both show deficits.

    I refuse to believe that the “identity” and the co-worker you describe are really normal. They have had a problem with their socialization.

  18. etbe says:

    Sigh, Bruce that was the SECOND time you did that! I’ve just read the horrible discussion at the above URL.

    After being in a long discussion, having lots of FAQs and Wiki entries pointed out to you, and having a year to think about it you still didn’t learn.

    Yet you criticise people like me for having empathy problems!

  19. Bruce Perens says:

    Hi Russell,

    I think what you are actually criticizing me for is rejecting dogma. Yes, you and Matthew Garrett and perhaps some other folks repeat the party line and I reject it because the evidence of my personal experience says it isn’t true. The people I am talking about are not necessarily “espies”, or have “Asperger’s Syndrome” or a “Spectrum Disorder”. They don’t necessarily have anything listed in the DSM. But they have, I am convinced, a social disorder that, I believe originates in their neural wiring.

    I am listening. I am well aware of what you are saying. I reject it entirely because the evidence of my senses is that it is not true, and to do otherwise would be to act with poor scientific integrity.


  20. Jessica says:

    I’m an Aspie, and I find it much easier to talk with someone in a formal setting, such as the head of state example, than to deal with someone on a more personal level. I tend to wow people in interviews or when giving a talk in my field, but I fail at the sort of interactions expected over coffee or at a party. Assumptions about what we can and cannot do shouldn’t be the point of this, the point should be that there’s no way that all the software conference attending assholes are spectrumites.

  21. etbe says:

    Bruce: Matthew and I have had very different experiences related to such things. We don’t discuss such things so there was never a possibility for us to agree on a “party line”.

    If you believe that you know of a disorder which isn’t in the DSM then you should start by making a submission for the DSM-V process. I’m sure that they would be interested in having you point out how all the psychologists got it wrong.

    Also the fact that you appear to have only just realised that virginity is not related to hymens suggests that you aren’t going to come up with any insights related to any aspect of feminism or psychology.

    Jessica: Can you cite a reference to show that meeting a head of state is a socially easy task? I presume that it involves a lot of pressure and requires reasonable social skills. But I’ve never met a head of state and after a lifetime of being described as a “refugee from the diplomatic corps” it seems unlikely that I will ever meet one. I’ve given lectures at many conferences in different countries, the social requirement for such things is very small. Being able to notice when the audience doesn’t get a concept such that more explanation is necessary is a good skill, but some people manage to give good talks without doing that.

    You are correct that Bruce’s claims about guys being assholes being due to being Aspies (search for Asperger in the above web page) are bogus.

    I’ve had some long discussions with feminists in the Linux community. It seems quite clear that the reason why the plight of Aspies isn’t worse than that of women is because Aspie guys don’t get sexually harassed all the time, tend not to get sexually assaulted, don’t have their contributions denigrated all the time, and avoid lots more bad stuff that happens to women all the time.

  22. Chris Samuel says:

    Russell, Jessica isn’t saying that meeting a head of state is a socially easy task, she’s saying that formal meetings with rigidly defined protocols are easier to navigate for her than nebulous “social chitchat” sessions where there are no obvious rules and you feel all at sea, for instance not quite knowing whether you’ve said to much or too little.

  23. etbe says:

    Chris: It’s possible that Jessica was using “head of state” as a turn of phrase. But Bruce and I are discussing actual meetings with senior members of governing bodies. While there are probably some situations in which one could just give a lecture about technology I expect that in most cases there would be some chit-chat. While chit-chat with peers can be difficult it’s much easier than chit-chat with VIPs who have high expectations for social ability.

    I don’t expect that a head of state or head of government (presumably Bruce was talking about a HoG not a HoS – I can’t imagine RMS getting a meeting with the Queen) would just attend a lecture and depart when it’s over. If they just wanted a lecture they would get one of their advisors to attend and send them notes. If nothing else a member of the audience in a lecture is presumably as unimportant in a global sense as you or I, but someone who gets a private 1:1 briefing (with chit-chat) is much more important. Getting a chit-chat meeting with someone like RMS would be a status symbol.

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